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Biblical Scholar, Poet, Coder, Massage Therapist, Doula — and Blind


Polymath Ray McAllister talks about his work coding Hebrew symbols for Braille, winning the "Nobel Prize for blindness," and being a part of the miracle of childbirth.

Adventist: I cook with TvP and tofu, never any meat or cheese.
I’ll die before I use unnatural remedies to treat disease.
I’ve never tasted alcohol or tried to smoke a cigarette.
I don’t wear jewelry, and I tithe the half of everything I get.
Then, all day Sabbath I’m at church and gladly sit on every board.
I help out with the Pathfinders, and never do I seek reward.
I know all 700 hymns and never miss a syllable.
Syllable? Ah, yes.
I make all strive to reach my goals however unfulfillable.
All: He makes all strive to reach his goals however unfulfillable.
He makes all strive to reach his goals however unfulfillable.
He makes all strive to reach his goals however unfulfillable.

–This one verse is excerpted from Ray McAllister's "The Modern Faithful Adventist," based on Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance. The complete poem will appear in the next issue of the Spectrum journal.

What inspired you to write the poem "The Modern Faithful Adventist"? Had you been listening to Gilbert & Sullivan's work a lot? Listening to some particularly "thought-provoking" sermons?

I wanted to address the issues of how many Adventists major in minors, being really good with doctrinal and dietary issues but not necessarily up on matters like loving one another.  

Many science fiction programs like Star Trek and Babylon 5 seem to involve the Modern Major General song, and I got familiar with it through those.  It just seemed like a match made in heaven for satire.

Have you written other poetry? Do you have a special interest in poetry?

I write lots of poetry.  I published a book of poetry, Journey of Passion, in 1998 from Mellen Poetry Press.  Mellen says its books never go out of print, so someone could contact the company and order one if it isn’t found anywhere else.

You are the first blind person to get a Ph.D in Hebrew Scriptures, which you earned at Andrews University in 2010. Can you explain why this was a particularly difficult subject for a blind person to study?

שָׁלוֹם   That’s Shalom, in Hebrew.  But, I had to handle that in Braille and use texts that weren’t converted into Braille. 

The languages we were studying had more technical characters and markings than the standard Braille Greek and Hebrew original language texts provided.  

I ended up resorting to using computer-code-style files that used letters, numbers, and punctuations to represent Greek and Hebrew symbols.  I had a computer that would convert these symbols into Braille letters and show them on a Braille display: a device using something like magnetic pins that pop up in the shape of Braille.  

I was grateful to have these resources, but I knew that other blind people would need something that would appear more like Braille Greek and Hebrew, just with the extra symbols. 

And now you feel a mission to help other blind people study ancient languages, is that right? You and your organization, The Semitic Scholars, were awarded a prestigious prize from the National Federation of the Blind last summer for your work in making Biblical language materials accessible to the blind. I understand you coded Braille in ancient biblical languages so blind people could study the original texts. How did you do that? 

More and more blind people have dreams that involve studying the Bible in the original languages.  For some, this study is a means to the end of being successful professional spiritual leaders.  For others, there is a deep passion for more fully understanding the meaning and beauty of the Biblical texts.  Whatever the reason, such a journey presents some difficult obstacles.  Developing ways to overcome these obstacles has been the work of the Semitic Scholars group: three blind or visually impaired individuals.

I developed coding for the symbols not already set up in Braille.  Hebrew has these accents which help one know when to pause when reading and which also can be used to know how to chant, or sing, the text.  Most of these symbols were not already coded in Braille Hebrew.  Since chanting is a task a blind person can enjoy, I felt the need to prepare Hebrew Bibles in Braille for the blind with all these symbols.  Once I developed these symbols, I needed to have them peer reviewed. 

That was where Sarah Blake LaRose, one of the other two Semitic Scholars, came in.  Mrs. Larose is a professional Braille transcriber and professor of Hebrew.  In 2007, she developed a Braille table for JAWS screen reader for Biblical Greek, with all its technical markings, and Hebrew.  JAWS, then, would enable a computer to show Biblical Hebrew in Braille for blind users. 

With her guidance, I completed a system I could use to prepare texts that the blind could use.  One notable text is the Aleppo Hebrew Bible, available in the public domain.  Using “search and replace” in MS Word, and a lot of other technical tricks, I converted that entire Hebrew Bible, accents and all, into Braille, and, yes, I have chanted Hebrew from it fluidly.  

I also converted many other Hebrew documents, Semitic inscriptions, and many Greek documents into Braille using “search and replace.”  Then, in 2014, I wrote a Hebrew course for the blind.

I began collaborating with Duxbury Systems, a company that produces software to convert documents of various languages into Braille, where I began working closely with Matthew Yeater.  Mr. Yeater is the current president of the National Federation of the Blind of Michiana and is the third member of our Semitic Scholars group.  He had been working with Duxbury to set up a system for converting Biblical language documents containing many languages, with English included, into Braille.  This would allow grammars, articles, and dictionaries to be easily Brailled.  Mr. Yeater and I set up the code for Syriac in Braille, and I coded Coptic.  (Syriac is similar to Hebrew but uses a different alphabet.  Coptic is a late form of Egyptian but has letters based on Greek.)

It is now possible to use Duxbury to convert many ancient texts to Braille without having to use “search and replace.”  

Recently, I have begun converting public domain Greek works of Plato and Aristotle into Braille.  It’s definitely a lot easier relying on Duxbury to do most of the translation into Braille. 

My dreams for the future of this project are simple:  I wish to have more texts in these and more related ancient languages in Braille formats for the blind.  

It is my prayer that this award will give me the recognition I need to negotiate with scholars around the world so I can access the text materials I need. 

The prize came with $20,000. How will you use this money to further your goals?

I used my portion to fund the downpayment for a house in which I have more space and a central point to work from in anything I do.

How did you become interested in studying Hebrew scriptures?

I just wanted to.  I find Hebrew and Jewish roots fascinating.

You teach religion classes for Andrews via distance education on an adjunct basis. Would you say it is easier for a blind person to teach online?

Easier than doing other things, easier than teaching face to face, or easier than a sighted person teaching?  With my screen reader, I’m able to manage just about anything a sighted person can do, and, there’s no commute time or transportation issues.

You are also a licensed massage therapist. Do you currently work as a massage therapist? What led you to this work? It seems very different from working as a biblical scholar!

My main historical mentor is Leonardo da Vinci who did just about everything well.  My mind, to be satisfied, must do many things.  I’ve always enjoyed massage as a hobby, and when I wasn’t succeeding as planned in academia, I decided to make massage a profession.  Now I don’t want to give it up.

And even more unusually, you are also a certified doula, helping women in childbirth! A male doula is very unusual, and maybe a blind doula even more unusual. What inspired you to become a doula? When did you become certified? Do you actively work as a doula? How many women have you assisted in childbirth? Do you have children yourself?

I was turning 40, and my wife and I had no kids. Yet for years I had dreamed of experiencing the miracle of birth. 

Since I'm totally blind, sitting in the back of a delivery room wouldn't be helpful.  So in 2014, a year after I became a licensed massage therapist, I began training to become a certified massage doula. (I have never heard of any other blind male certified doulas.)

I had to complete theoretical and practical training to first become a certified prenatal massage therapist. Next, I read all the materials (with my screen reader) for becoming a massage doula. Learning the theory was easy, and I passed the academic test for the doula course.

But then I had to find three pregnant women who would accept a blind man as their doula. That turned out to be a challenge even though I was offering free prenatal and postpartum massage care. Finally, I reached out to a homeless shelter where I had done infant massage previously. A pregnant woman there decided she wanted me as her doula, and she referred me to another pregnant friend of hers, who in turn recommended me to another friend.

I helped those three mothers as they went into labor and supported them through pushing. Being part of those births was the most amazing experience. The mothers all reported that I helped them significantly and that my blindness was not a hindrance. 

Later, I was able to serve as a doula for three more women.

How did you lose your sight?

Peter’s Anomaly is the condition. In 1987, when I was 12 years old, the degenerative birth defect climaxed, and I lost the limited vision I had in my one somewhat good eye.

Where are you from originally? 


Would you describe Michigan, where you now live, as the heartland of the "modern, faithful Adventist"?

They’re everywhere.

Where do you picture yourself in five years? What would be your ultimate job?

Well, that’s the beauty in all of this. I threw away the “script” a few years ago, turned off “autopilot,” and now my mission is at my discretion.  I haven’t a clue where I’ll be.  I’m just trying to follow God’s lead.  I like the adventure better this way.


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Image courtesy of Ray McAllister.


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